Life After Oprah: Five Things to Know, and What to Expect

As the Queen of Talk Prepares to Depart for Cable, Clues as to How She'll Fill 24 Hours of Airtime, and More

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O, GOSH: This is Oprah's Ted Turner moment.
O, GOSH: This is Oprah's Ted Turner moment. Credit: Wenn
1. This won't be Oprah's Howard Stern moment.
Given that Oprah is moving from syndicated broadcast TV to a cable network with less reach, there's been plenty of speculation that her power as a cultural force could diminish in the same way that Howard Stern's did when he moved from free radio to satellite. (OWN, the Oprah Winfrey Network, will be replacing the Discovery Health channel, with its distribution to 70 million homes.) But keep in mind that her partner, Discovery Communications, has rather awe-inspiring new leverage to negotiate wider carriage -- if you've ever seen Oprah work a room full of TV executives, you know what an amazing salesperson she is -- and it understands the economics involved in securing more homes. (According to SNL Kagan, the flagship Discovery channel is basically neck-and-neck with TBS, The Weather Channel, Nickelodeon and the USA Network among the most widely distributed cable networks in the U.S.; all are in basically 101 million homes.) As TV columnist Tom Jicha of the South Florida Sun Sentinel put it, "Cable systems don't want to have their switchboards blown out by angry fans demanding to know, 'Why can't I get Oprah?'"

2. Oprah really had no choice but to quit her talk show.
OWN was supposed to launch this year, but was quietly and mysteriously delayed. Why? Because even Oprah can only multitask so much. Some background: I was an editorial consultant on the launch of O, The Oprah Magazine, the joint venture between Oprah's Harpo Print and Hearst, so I got to watch up close as Oprah extended her brand to the glossy world. (She was, for the record, a joy to work with -- every bit as authentic, thoughtful, gracious and funny as she is on TV.) She was deeply hands-on, whether she was on site at the magazine's headquarters in New York or calling in from Chicago. (I got used to getting afternoon and evening calls from Oprah -- after she was done taping her show -- in which she'd offer her considered opinions on every last detail of the magazine, right down to the sidebars and captions.) Over time, Oprah's involvement in the magazine has diminished, as you'd expect, but there was no way she was going to launch OWN -- obviously a much bigger undertaking than starting a monthly magazine -- without the same sort of obsessive attention to detail. Something had to give, and it was the syndicated show. And speaking of O magazine ...

3. For a clue to how Oprah will fill 24 hours a day, seven days a week of airtime, look to O.
Oprah brought a lot of her broadcast brands and franchises to her magazine -- Dr. Phil and Suze Orman, for instance, were given columns starting with the very first issue -- but the magazine has also fed ideas back into the broadcast. For instance, "Oprah's Favorite Things," the top-rated episode of her show each year, actually started out as "The O List" in O. Oprah's show, given how topical it tends to be, lurches all over the cultural terrain by design, whereas O magazine offers a more programmatic, systematic take on its readers' interests -- which is exactly the sort of holistic approach OWN will need to fill 24 hours of broadcast time each day. In a way, Oprah's magazine has been a perfect laboratory and sandbox. I'd bet that just about every idea that ends up on OWN will have already appeared, in one form or another, in the pages of O mag.

4. Watch for a viral/social-media aspect to factor big into OWN.
All indications are that Oprah is increasingly fascinated with the power of viral culture -- from her friend's "Yes We Can" campaign video for Barack Obama to the big boost she gave Twitter (by the way, Oprah has reportedly signed celebrity Twitter icon Ashton Kutcher's production company, Katalyst, to create original programming for OWN), to the "flash mob" her staff staged on Chicago's Michigan Avenue to kick off her current season. If Discovery and Oprah are smart -- and they are -- OWN will be engineered from the start with plenty of little editorial franchises that can work as well in the social-media realm (and on YouTube, Hulu, etc.) as they can on cable.

5. This is literally about Life After Oprah.
Before Oprah, Phil Donahue redefined daytime TV. Then he went off the air, and he faded into broadcast history, even if he's fondly remembered. Oprah wants, and needs, to be more than fondly remembered. This is her Ted Turner or William S. Paley moment -- her chance to make history as not only a one-of-a-kind TV talent, but as a business and broadcast visionary. "My intention [for OWN] is for it to live beyond me," she told Sonia Alleyne of Black Enterprise last year, "for it to be a living network of possibilities for people in their own lives. To be able to say that my life was used in service, to help people come to their highest potential -- I would do it even if my name wasn't attached to it."

That sounds almost spiritual ... because for Oprah, it is.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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